Monthly Archives: May 2014

M is for Magic

M is for MagicM is for Magic by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many of us who believe that true magic lies in stories know and love Gaiman for his work on Sandman. Sandman itself was built of stories. That was a large part of the wonder of it. But it was still an epic, and I had never gotten around to exploring Gaiman’s short stories.

I’ve had the goal of doing so for a long time, especially as Gaiman is known as a huge fan and protégé of my very favorite crafter of short stories, Gene Wolfe. (In fact, the only time I’ve ever met the two of them in person they were interviewing each other at a Chicago Humanities Festival event several years ago.) I haven’t had much time for reading fiction lately though, so this was a low-priority, long-term goal.

But then my wife brought this book home from the library, and I had a lazy Saturday. And M for Magic is definitely a Saturday book. It’s a single-day read. Don’t take it along for a week’s getaway by the lake (or at least, don’t take only it along). These stories are quick, lovely, and melt-in-your mouth. I could say other things as well. I could say they were dreamlike (as you would expect from Gaiman), haunting, gorgeous, and practically flawless. But I might sound a bit gushy, something I try to avoid.

This particular anthology was built out of stories Gaiman chose for young-adult audiences, but they don’t feel like kids’ stories. This is part of Gaiman’s art, which he has used to good effect in works like his movie Coraline or his children’s book Wolves in the Walls: the ability to tap into some of the things that make childhood filled with equal parts wonder and fear.

There are a lot of voices echoing around in the corners of this anthology. The title is a self-admitted tip of the hat to Bradbury, whose voice haunts works like “October in the Chair” and “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” (which holds the only whiff of science fiction in what is an otherwise straight fantasy collection). Lafferty is clearly laughing through the background of “Sunbird,” one of my favorites in the anthology. And there are strains of Beagle’s Fine and Private Place throughout the longest story in the batch, “The Witch’s Headstone.”

Not to say any of this work is derivative. It is not. We all build our stories on the backs of what we’ve read and loved. And there are pieces in here that are completely unique, with a voice of cats and railroad beds and England and magic that is Gaiman himself, un-distilled, as in “Troll Bridge,” “Chivalry,” and “The Price.” With the exception of the first, bumpy story in this work, nothing here disappointed. All of my other “to read” Gaiman anthologies just climbed up a notch on my list.

If you need a breath of fresh air, and you want to open a window in your skull letting in a breeze on which the metallic tang of rain and the heavy scent of graveyard flowers are mingled, read this book.

The Idea of a Christian College

The Idea of a Christian CollegeThe Idea of a Christian College by Arthur F. Holmes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m still not convinced there is such a thing as “Christian scholarship.” A weak version of the definition of such a thing might be that it is simply the recognition that all scholars carry presuppositions and assumptions into their work. The Christian’s will be Christian and should have the same bearing as a materialist’s, as long as such presuppositions are acknowledged. A stronger version of the definition of Christian scholarship would be that because all truth is God’s truth, all real scholarship is Christian scholarship. Both of these seem to me so wide as to be non-definitions. At the end of the day, Christian scholarship is simply that which is produced by Christian scholars. Much of it cannot be (and should not be) distinguished from the scholarly work of a secular scholar. The only real difference is the life of the person creating it.

In this respect, to me it seems that more important than the question of what is Christian scholarship are questions of what a Christian scholar looks like, what the role of scholarship in the life of the Christian is, and what sort of environment can best cultivate and articulate answers to these questions. It is the last of these questions that Arthur Holmes, a philosopher who spent the majority of his career at Wheaton College, sets out to explore in his book on the nature of Christian education at Christian colleges. (The cover of my edition says that this is a “Philosophy of Chr. Ed for Laymen,” but the cover also looks like it was designed by a seven-year-old, so I’m not sure how seriously to take that designation.)

For Holmes, Christian scholarship depends on the integration of faith and learning. This can happen in many different contexts, but Holmes is writing specifically for one context: that of a Christian liberal arts college. The distinction between a liberal arts college and vocational schools—seminaries or Bible colleges, for instance, in the Christian tradition—is a very important one. A liberal arts education, Holmes explains, is specially suited for the cultivation of Christian scholarship, because it is here that careful philosophical thought is nurtured and Christians develop the tools for a critical examination of both their own assumptions and those of others. A Christian liberal arts college needs to be a place where the virtue-forming aspects of education are emphasized: not “what can this education do for me?” but “what will this education do to me?”

This is a slender, highly accessible volume, similar in size and scope to the more recent “reexamination” of the topic (with the same title) by Reams and Glazer that I reviewed not long ago. Perhaps because I read the Reams/Glazer work first, there was much of the Holmes volume that did not seem new (though Holmes’ prose is sharper, and his philosophical training shows through to good effect in comparison to the latter volume). The primary point of departure between Reams/Glazer and Holmes is that Holmes focuses on a very specific type of institution, while Reams/Glazer attempt to update and expand this to the “Christian research university.”

Holmes’ book, though originally written in the 70s, remains a very relevant challenge and warning to Christian higher education today. This is encapsulated in a quote that Reams and Glanzer re-use as an epigram for one of their own chapters:

A community that argues ideas only in the classroom,
a teacher whose work seems a chore,
a student who never reads a thing beyond what is assigned,
a campus that empties itself of life and thought all weekend,
an attitude that devaluates disciplined study in comparison with rival claimants on time and energy,
a dominant concern for job-preparation
—these can never produce a climate of learning.

At least from my experience, these warnings ring very true.

I found his articulation of the purpose of a liberal arts education most compelling:

The question to ask about education, then, is not, “What can I do with all this stuff anyway?” because both I and my world are changing, but rather “What will all this stuff do to me?” This question is basic to the concept of liberal arts education.

I want my students to understand this. The goal of education is not to present certain bodies of information by the most entertaining, engaging, and effective means possible. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, but that’s vocational training. A liberal arts education is about beginning a conversation—with scholars and texts and ideas—that will continue for life. Not with the goal of getting a certain type of job or certification but with the goal of becoming a certain kind of person.

Holmes also has vital things to say about academic freedom at Christian colleges and the balance between remaining a community of faith and yet not existing to indoctrinate students into a particular school of thought: A college is Christian in that it does its work in a Christian way, not by encouraging an unthinking faith to counterbalance faithless thought. Students and faculty must have the freedom to question and explore with diligence, reason, and humility. In a Christian college this ideal takes place in the context of community. Liberty without loyalty is not Christian, but loyalty without the liberty to think for oneself is not education.

I’d like to think most Christian college administrators and faculty are familiar with this book. I’d really, really like to think that. In the meantime, I’ll be asking my honors students to read portions of it in the fall.

Trees and Other Wonders

castle version

After I had published ten stories in various print and electronic magazines– at least one of which was published on another continent and many of which were quickly out of print– I figured I’d collect them all and try my hand at an anthology. Here they are. Ten of my published pieces from 2008 to 2013, along with two unpublished stories that I felt were worthy of inclusion. This was my experiment with electronic publishing. Currently the work is only available on Kindle, though Kindle as a platform can be downloaded for free on pretty much any operating system. A few people have asked me about getting a print copy. As of right now, I haven’t spent enough time on Createspace to get one worked up, and I haven’t been very pleased with the quality of the print-on-demand books I’ve seen. I did the cover myself and had fun creating an afterword explaining a bit about each piece. I haven’t gotten much feedback, though there are a few nice reviews on Amazon. The one print review I garnered was published in the Australian magazine Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. I thought it said some pretty nice things, which I’ve quoted below: “There’s a richness of the imagination here, a calmly-measured pace, a solidity. . . . There’s a vivid quality to his writing, and an underlying ability to evoke wonderment at the worlds or tableaux pictured within these pages. There are echoes, too, of a Golden-Age-anything-is-possible kind of sensibility to many of these stories. . . . Case has produced a collection in which almost every story reads like a fable, the moral of which is a secret the reader may hope to discover before the end. There’s an easy acceptance of the fantastical, a hint of the impossible.” I like that. If you’re interested, you can get a copy here.

The Cult of Pythagoras

The Cult of Pythagoras: Math and MythsThe Cult of Pythagoras: Math and Myths by Alberto A. Martinez

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Everyone knows that Pythagoras was an early Greek mathematician, that he proved the Pythagorean theorem, and that he was one of the first to glimpse our modern conception of the world– that the universe can be described by numbers. Everyone “knows” this, but is there actually any historical basis to these claims? What do we really know about Pythagoras and what he did, and how much of what is taught about him in math classes is actually myth? Apparently quite a bit, according to Alberto Martinez.

The Cult of Pythagoras could have as easily been titled The Myths of Pythagoras. Martinez, a historian of science at the University of Texas, Austin, convincingly argues in the first two chapters of this work that the foundation on which we’ve built the myth of Pythagoras and his accomplishments is very thin indeed. Martinez does what generations of math historians and popularizers of science have failed to do: drill down to the source material and examine what ancient authorities actually have to say about the man. What he finds is that the earliest accounts are vague, contradictory, and emphasize Pythagoras’s mythical attributes– his teachings as a religious figure and his reported miracles– as much as they do his mathematics. What fascinates Martinez is the way that these accounts have been distorted and magnified over the centuries until we get the Pythagoras of modern conception today: the veritable father of mathematics.

Pythagoras actually takes up only fraction of this book. The subtitle, “Math and Myths,” gives a better indication of the bulk of the work. Besides Pythagoras, Martinez debunks other famous myths from the history of mathematics. Gauss finding the sum of all integers from 1 to 100 during a grade school exercise. Euler getting imaginary numbers wrong. Galois’ tragic tale. The golden ratio popping up everyone where in nature and art and architecture. If the book was simply a historian of science plumbing the depths of the historical source material and making modern promulgators of these stories look foolish, it would be worth the admission alone.

But Martinez has a deeper program here. There’s a fundamental myth about mathematics that he uses many of these other minor myths to explode. And that is the Platonic conception of mathematics as something somehow independent of the physical world itself, existing beyond our own mental constructions. This is the perception of mathematics existing eternal and unchanging, of mathematical discovery as not inventing new systems but instead discovering truths that were there all along. What Martinez sees instead, when he looks at the history of mathematics, is the story of things being formalized and formulated, not discovered. In particular, Martinez examines the nature of imaginary numbers, the problem of dividing by zero, and the rules regulating multiplication by negatives. These are not mathematical properties written in stone, Martinez argues, though they’re often taught that way. They are instead conventions that developed slowly over time.

Against a mathematical Platonism on the one hand and a radical constructivism on the other, Martinez ventures into philosophy and poses his own system of mathematical pluralism. Some fundamental tenants of mathematics are true independent of human though. 2 + 2 will always equal 4, for instance, whether or not there is anyone around to see or discover this fact. But other mathematical principles are constructed, like William Hamilton’s quaternions. The problem is, Martinez doesn’t provide us with any way of distinguishing which portions of mathematics fall into which category. Are the principles of Euclidean geometry independent of human thought? Would the Pythagorean theorem hold for all right triangles, regardless of whether there were humans around to mentally construct them? Or does the construction of self-consistent non-Euclidean geometries argue against this? There’s fertile ground for philosophical speculation there, which I would have liked to have seen Martinez follow up on.

At the end of the book, Martinez returns to Pythagoras. Why is it so easy to hang accomplishments on this man’s name without any secure historical basis? Beyond mathematics, Martinez explains, Pythagoras also gets attributions from religion, new age thought, philosophy, alchemy, astronomy, and more. Here Martinez ventures into sociology, explaining how accomplishments (whether actual or not) tend to accrue to people who are already “famous.” The very paucity of real data regarding Pythagoras, Martinez concludes, makes him a sort of vessel in which all these attributes can be poured, a well-known cipher from antiquity for our own values that we wish to project into the past.

In sum, The Cult of Pythagoras, though the prose is in places is uneven and the book itself wanders in the multiple points it makes, is a powerful argument for expelling myth from the teaching of mathematics. The history of mathematics itself, based not on unfounded stories but on the real historical events and accomplishments, is far more interesting and compelling than the unhelpful myths that are propagated regarding mathematicians and the practice of mathematics itself. Martinez’s scholarship is grounded on what the texts actually tell us, and I heartily recommend to anyone teaching mathematics. The chapters on Pythagoras alone make this worth any mathematician’s bookshelf.

Ghosts on Asphalt

Or brick. Cement. A forgotten metal back door, colored by rust. The garage door that opens into an alley. Underneath a railroad overpass. There in the nooks and crannies. They appear, linger for a while, then disappear as quickly and as quietly, faded like frost on a window.

I’m fascinated by stencil graffiti.

DSCF3286

416282-R1-047-22_1 copy

DSCF3490

DSCF4014

DSCF4239

DSCF4250

DSCF4282

Then there’s this guy. Found stuck (painted?) onto a road, just off the crosswalk. Not sure what his story is.

DSCF4363

The Descent of the Dove

The Descent of the DoveThe Descent of the Dove by Charles Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good friend of mine once called Chesterton’s Everlasting Man “bullshit history.” He meant it in the best way possible. A similar label could be applied to this volume by the famously-forgotten lost Inkling, Charles Williams. I’ve written about Williams’ wonderful yet at-times-exasperating fiction here before. He’s difficult to classify. Like Chesterton, he sort of slips through the cracks by his works’ tendency to resolutely resist any pat classification. His fiction is not fantasy. Neither is it realism. I’ve heard it classified before as “theological thriller,” but if that makes you think of Frank Peretti then you’re still in children’s church. When I heard that Williams had written a history “of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” I tracked it down in Olivet’s library. (Note to Nazarenes: according to the old library card still stuck in it, this copy was checked out by “Dr. Parrott” in 1975. I wonder what he thought of it. And why he felt he needed to sign his name “Dr. Parrott.”)

The Descent of the Dove is not a history of the Holy Spirit. It’s a history of the Holy Spirit in the church. Big difference. I thought I might get a study of how the church has understood the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, throughout its history. Which would have been fascinating. How did the early church come to understand the vague admonitions of the post-Resurrection Christ and the strange happenings of Pentecost? Whence the Filioque? Stuff like that.

I’m sure there’s a study like that out there somewhere, but this is not that book. This is much more along the lines of Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. Because for Williams, of course, the history of the church itself is the history of the Holy Spirit active in the church. So what we have instead is a much more straightforward and less surprising work: an intellectual history of Christianity, unencumbered by detailed analysis of doctrine or careful study of primary texts. Which is fine. Williams wasn’t a historian. He was a literary scholar and a writer and a Christian, and this book– again, like Chesterton’s Everlasting Man— is a very intelligent, very erudite man’s apology for the church.

Apology as in explanation. How did the church get to where it is today? What forces and ideas shaped it throughout its history? This is something like modern “worldview” talk; reducing history to broad strokes and generalizations. Not necessarily a bad thing. The big picture. The sweep of history. Williams is understandably Western-centric without being exclusive. He has a grasp of the implications of ideas, even if he plays fast and loose with their origins or evolution. The motivating factor, the explanatory agent, throughout all of this is of course the vague and subtle and undeniable direction of the Holy Spirit.

If Williams has one theme he wants to sell, it’s his idea of co-inherence. This comes into play in his novels as well, and for all the enjoyable ink he’s spilled on it, I’m still not sure what it means. It revolves around the idea that humans and the Divine can share and experience the qualities of one another. Christ took on our pain and our shame through his crucifixion. His divinity co-inheres with the Father. His divinity somehow also co-inheres with us. When we take on the pain and burdens of others (through empathy or prayer or something more mystical, I’m not sure), we co-inhere with each other. It’s a suitably slippery theme that Williams can trace it throughout the history of the church. I’m not saying he’s wrong. I’m just saying its a vague and slippery idea.

If I sound like I’m faulting Williams for trying to nail jello to a wall, I’m really not. This was a very enjoyable and well-crafted book, if you simply enjoy it for what it is: intellectual history by a guy who wrote very well, thought very well, and could hold his own with the likes of Tolkien and Lewis. But historians like to work with concrete dates and events and texts. Scientists like concrete concepts and evidence. Intellectual history sort of floats over both of these, much more the literary creation of a literary mind (an interpretation of history and the evolution of the church) than pure scholarship. More art than history.

Which is, again, okay. In the end, all we really have are our own interpretations of history. Our own ideas of how we got to where we are. Read this book to get Charles Williams’, which are probably worth more than most.